The Isle Of Wight Challenge

When I signed up for the Isle of Wight Challenge with Ultra Challenges I never imagined anything but reaching the finish line.

From the minute I committed to the challenge, the training began. Pre Christmas saw me racking up the mileage alone, then as the New Year rolled in I started training with my team mates and old boot camp friends.

Every weekend would see us increasingly mileage, meeting in carparks in an un-godly hour of Sunday morning and building up our endurance for the challenge ahead. Training in wet, windy and, on numerous occasions, bitterly cold, snowy conditions.

We racked up hundreds of miles over the months in the lead up to the Isle of Wight. I felt that my fitness had taken a turn for the better. I was training with many others who were faster and taller than me – so my walking speed and endurance had improved. I have overcome many issues with footwear, socks and blisters. And although I was extremely nervous about the day itself – I was more prepared than I have ever been for any challenge.

I never imagined I would feel how I felt on race day.

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The morning saw us wake to a beautiful sunny morning. Not a cloud in the sky. And at 7am there was already no need for any more layers other than a t-shirt. We knew it was going to be warm, so we had to ensure we take precautions.

The excitement and nerves were evident at the start line. As a group in one of the last waves, we saw many participants head out before us. I felt good, I felt strong and I felt capable.

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Soon enough we were on our way from Chale, with stunning views along the south coast of the Island in front of us. Everyone in our group was in high spirits, chatting away and enjoying the scenery whilst tackling the task at hand.

We breezed our way through to the first rest stop, quickly taking in supplies and using the facilities, before continuing our way along the coastal path.

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The views along the route were simply to die for. With the sea sparkling below us and the sun shining so brightly you would have thought we were somewhere in the Mediterranean rather than a little island off the south coast of England.

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As the heat of the day continued to climb, so did our ascent. The terrain provided a number of up hill climbs towards the west coast of the island and the Needles. One particular climb was somewhat of a beast after Fresh Water Bay, just as you thought you were at the top you see the hill goes on and on – providing you fantastic views once at the top.

It was just after this climb that our second rest stop approached. Time to take a seat, change into a fresh pair of socks and refuel.

Here I discovered a couple of blisters on my baby toes that needed dressing before doing so. They were quickly seen to and with a change of footwear too – we were quickly on our way.

Needles to West Cowes was the second leg of the route. Still in high spirits we trundled on along the waterfront – extremely envious of those paddling, sitting down to an afternoon drink or just having an ice cream by the sea. With the heat now soaring – I would have given anything to kick off my shoes and go for a paddle myself.

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The previous day we were pre warned about a particularly bad stretch of path between 30-50km. We were advised that it was boggy, wet and we had to take extra caution. With the heat of the day I believed that this would not be the case when we reached the 30km mark. I was wrong. You knew when you reached it, there were queues of participants waiting to tackle the area.

Boggy does not cover it. It was the most soul destroying part of the route. Not only did you have to try and tackle the path as quickly as possible, but you also had to try to remain upright without loosing a shoe. It was relentless, it felt like it went on for miles and with the amount of people taking part it took forever. It slowed us down, draining precious energy and also led to aches we did not account for. No where in our training did we encounter a terrain as this – and we had trained over farmers fields in the winter.

Soon enough we were back on road and woodland paths, with another rest stop approaching.

I could no longer feel the ache of the blisters on my baby toes, but instead my ankles just throbbed. The boggy terrain and consequential uneven footing had taken its toll. Refuelling again (at this point I had got through 6 litres of fluid), taking some painkillers and rubbing in some Voltarol, and then it was time to head off. Next stop 52km break point, dinner and the switch to the night gear ready for the dark hours.

A shift happened between the two rest stops. The team broke away slightly, with a couple walking faster ahead and the majority slowing down slightly. The heat of the day was still intense, I was taking on more and more fluids – with little effect. I felt severely dehydrated, despite high volumes of water, I suddenly felt incredibly weak and nauseous.

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This section of the route saw us having to navigate numerous styes as we trekked through farm lands, and I found myself having less and less energy to lift my legs to get over.

Out of no where, around the 40km mark I started to cry. I had no idea why, but it kept coming. With the crying, came panic. I had not yet reached the half way point, we were a good few hours away from that, and I had no energy. I needed to eat, to get that much needed fuel to carry on, but I felt sick at the thought. I was in utter despair, going through a cycle of balling my eyes out, panicking and swearing profusely.

Then came another boggy section, with styes too. Shortly followed by a number of ambulances, attending to other participants suffering from heat exhaustion and even a rumoured broken leg. It seems the days heat and course had started to take its toll – we passed many others who were treating blisters on the curb, being rescued by loved ones and some just looking defeated. Those who were still walking in groups barely uttered a word to one another.

I don’t understand how I managed to find the energy; but spotting one of my team mates slightly ahead I picked up the pace. I knew I needed to keep up to get through to the half way point.

I had made a very difficult and upsetting decision to end my journey at 52km.

There was no energy left within me. The heat of the day and the terrain had taken everything from me, and as the sun began to set on our approach to the half way rest stop – I felt my temperature beginning to drop to the point that I was shivering uncontrollably.

I knew I could not make it through the night hours in my current state.

On seeing my face, the tears and the distress, my team mates knew it was not something they could talk me out of. The island had completely broken me. I had nothing left to give.

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And after waving them all off into the night, promising to be waiting for them on the other side, I felt a sense of relief and disappointment. Relief, knowing that I did not have to attempt to keep up with everyone else when I was feeling so drained, but so utterly disappointed and frustrated with my body for failing me.

I had trained hard for this one, walking further in training that I actually did on the day. But on race day itself my body bucked against the conditions.

Making the decision to finish at the 52km mark was soul destroying. It was not what I trained for, it was not in the plan. I never enter a race to say at the end “let’s just do half.” That’s not who I am. The finish line is always my goal. But after feeling wretched for miles and miles, I was genuinely concerned I would be putting my health at risk continuing into the night hours. So I made that call.

On crossing the 106km finish line the following morning, my team mates assured me I had made the right decision for me. I had finished the half distance in 11 hours 44 minutes, the 106km distance saw them on their feet for 27 hours with very little rest.

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And now, 5 days later I am still questioning my decision. I keep trying to think back and remember if it really was that bad. Was I really feeling so awful that the only choice was to give up? Not only do I still feel that I failed, I feel that perhaps I don’t have the determination I thought I had and that I am now just a quitter.

When so many people managed to fight through to the end, why could I not push myself on?

The Isle of Wight challenge will be one of those that will haunt me.

A race where I will always think “what if”?

In the wake of the event will I ever be able to stop questioning the decision I made and my overall ability?

Will I ever be able to lay it to rest?

One comment

  1. Gemma, you have done yet another amazing thing. You have raised funds for Mind, you have raised awareness, you have trained hard and achieved what few of us ever will. I hope you can come to terms with your feelings and be proud of your achievement. You made the right decision; your own well-being was the most important thing. Bob would have been so proud, just like at the marathon. We are all so proud of you. ❤

    Like

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